The 24 May Truce on Gallipoli
One of the most unusual events of the Gallipoli campaign was the truce agreed by British empire and Ottoman combatants on 24 May 1915, the only officially sanctioned cessation of hostilities to have occurred during the Great War.
Opposing forces in war had over the centuries often halted fighting, whether by agreement between commanders or informally between the troops engaged. In medieval warfare, elaborate rules governed the conduct of parleys and armistices, known as a ‘truce of God’ among Christian combatants. They would allow negotiations between armies or time to collect the wounded or bury the dead. Many of the British empire soldiers fighting on Gallipoli may have known of temporary and often informal truces arranged during the American Civil War and the Boer War. And under the Hague convention of 1907, local and general armistices were both possible and regulated.
The truce negotiated on Gallipoli was unique in the Great War. The celebrated ‘Christmas truce’ of 1914 on the Western Front occurred spontaneously among troops in the front lines and was deprecated by commanders on both sides. On Gallipoli, however, the 24 May truce occurred officially. But why and how?
Why was there a truce at Gallipoli in 1915?
The reason for the truce was that in the weeks following the 25 April invasion of the Gallipoli peninsula men of both sides had been killed in what became the ‘no man’s land’ between the opposing trench lines. The bodies of several hundred British empire troops, mostly Australians, lay out on the hillsides above what was now called Anzac Cove. No man who died in no man’s land could be recovered or buried, and to try was to attract snipers, machine-gun fire or shelling.
Much more significantly, the Ottoman defenders of what they called the Ari Burnu coast had made repeated, mass and costly attempts to counter-attack against the invaders’ lodgment. In the days following the landing, and especially on 19 May, Turkish commanders sent troops to attack the Anzac line, in an attempt, as they said, to drive their enemy into the sea.
Ottoman commanders used the sheer mass of their infantry to try to overwhelm the Anzac trenches. Attacking in waves from the early hours of 19 May, they attacked all along the Anzac line. Ottoman infantry died in their thousands, cut down by rifle and shell-fire (including from the British warships offshore) but especially by a network of machine-guns. By the afternoon the corpses of perhaps 3000 Turkish troops lay bloating in the growing Spring heat. The stench could be detected in boats in Anzac Cove: in the front line it became unbearable and threatened the outbreak of fly-borne disease.
Negotiating the truce
Attempts at proposing informal truces to gather wounded and bury the dead began on 20 May, when Red Crescent flags appeared over the Turkish lines. Anzac commanders at first refused to consider the requests, despite the threat posed by the rotting corpses and the millions of flies breeding in them. The next day, however, Anzac interpreters were told to shout to the Turkish trenches to allow small burial parties to emerge. This the Turks declined to do: they had several thousand unburied bodies and parties of a dozen men with shovels would not suffice.
On 22 May flags again appeared over the Turkish lines and medical officers from each side met informally in no man’s land to cautiously devise a proposal each could put to their superiors, still nervous that a truce could mask a surprise attack. Communication foundered amid suspicion and the difficulties of finding a common language – at Quinn’s Post a French-speaking Australian private possessed the only tongue spoken by men on both sides.
By 23 May the threat of the thousands of corpses rotting in the sun impelled Ottoman commanders to make a formal approach. A Turkish officer was led blindfold on a mule along a beach south of Anzac to begin a protracted negotiation at Anzac headquarters. At last, they reached agreement: hostilities would be suspended for nine-and-a-half hours from 7.30 a.m. on the morning of 24 May – what had been Queen Victoria’s birthday and the day Australian now celebrated as Empire Day.
Photo: Captain Sam Butler, holding the white truce flag, leads the blindfolded Turkish envoy Major Kemal Ohri from General Sir William Riddell Birdwood's Headquarters to return to the Turkish lines. Major Ohri was representing the Turkish army in negotiations at Birdwood's Headquarters to arrange an armistice so that the 3,000 Turks and approximately 169 Australians killed during the Turkish attack on Anzac positions 19 May 1915 could be buried. AWM H02318.
Ceasefire to bury the dead
At the appointed time whistles blew to signal a cease-fire and parties of troops rose from the opposing trenches, some carrying white flags to mark the mid-point of no man’s land, many more with shovels and picks to bury the dead. Australians and New Zealanders found and buried, and often identified, men who had been killed over the previous three weeks. Turkish burial parties had a much greater task, and many cleared the bodies carpeting the ground by simply rolling corpses down gullies and washways. The stench of decaying bodies sickened all involved and many later spoke of how the ordeal haunted them.
Photo: Gallipoli, Dardanelles, Turkey, 24 May 1915. Australian soldiers recovering for burial the dead bodies of some Turkish soldiers, killed in an unsuccessful attack on Anzac positions on 19 May 1915. Australian and Turkish forces had arranged a day-long armistice or truce so that they could retrieve their dead and wounded from No Man's Land. The soldier at rear has a handkerchief tied across his nose and mouth as a defence against the stench of decaying corpses. AWM P01815.010.
Officers supervising the truce warily met each other, exchanging chocolate or cigarettes and conducting stilted conversations, often by sign language. Both sides took advantage of the truce to examine the other side’s trenches, making notes of points to later attack or bombard, using the truce as an opportunity to covertly reconnoitre. Both also used the burial of corpses as ways to improve their positions. Those not detailed to bury the dead enjoyed a rare holiday free of danger in their own trenches.
Facing the enemy in ceasefire
The truce was for virtually all men on both sides the first time they had been able to see their enemy face-to-face. Australians, who had formerly believed that the Turks were using explosive bullets (in defiance of the prevailing Hague conventions) saw that their own bullets caused similar wounds. It was said that the truce allowed the Anzacs to regard their enemy as men rather than as faceless and brutal ‘Turks’, leading to the claim (much exaggerated in hindsight) that on Gallipoli Anzacs and Turks always respected each other. If it was true, it did not alter the ferocity with which both prosecuted the fighting, which resumed as soon as the truce ended.
The 24 May truce, organised for ‘public health’ reasons, remains unique in the Great War. It was never repeated, on Gallipoli or on any other front, a reflection of the war’s savagery.